God's love encompasses us in three dimensions
There have been many jokes around the Andrews-Weckerly household this week about why in the world I chose this Sunday, of all Sundays in the liturgical year, to return from maternity leave. Trinity Sunday is sort of a dreaded Sunday for most preachers. This is the Sunday that rectors give to seminarians, curates, and deacons because they feel overwhelmed by the prospect of preaching the doctrine of the Trinity in the pulpit – perhaps out of a fear of committing heresy or just out of a fear of producing a theologically correct, but pastorally unengaging sermon. And trust me, the thought crossed my mind to let our beloved Deacon Anthony pinch hit today.
The truth is, we all struggle a bit with the Trinity, even if we do not realize that we struggle. Think about your prayer life and whether you tend to favor one person of the Trinity in your petitions. I know people who habitually pray to God, but somehow get tripped up on saying Jesus’ name in a prayer. I know others who feel awkward praying to the Holy Spirit, not really sure what language to use. Still, there are others who do not like the masculine images associated with God the Father, and so they are more likely to either pray to the Holy Spirit, or use feminine language for God. And that is just our prayer life. Have you ever tried explaining the Trinity to a 4-year old? Words like “coeternal” and “holy, undivided,” are difficult to explain to a kid who has learned the stories of the Bible, but does not quite know how to make sense of the fact that Jesus is both the Son of God and coeternal with God – or that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, but is also the same God as God and Jesus.
Confused yet? The good news is that you are not alone. The Church took over 100 years of debating to finally be able to articulate a coherent theology of the Trinity. Theologians Arius and Athanasius debated long and hard over the persons of the Trinity, who they were, how they related to one another, and what the implications were for those theological conclusions. Though we are quite used to the Creed we say every Sunday, and the use of the Trinity in blessings and other parts of the liturgy, those creeds and liturgies did not just develop overnight or without a great deal of arguing and prayerful consideration.
And yet, here we are today, celebrating Trinity Sunday and reading Jesus’ instruction to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ instructions today are not just for the disciples – those instructions are for us, too. So how are we supposed to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost authentically if we do not even really understand or feel comfortable with the idea of the Trinity? Does our lack of understanding matter? The first answer is yes. We do need a working understanding of the Trinity, because a fuller understanding of the breadth of God helps us to engage in fuller worship of and relationship with God. [i] We cannot go out into the world without understanding that, “The same God who is God over us as God the Father and Creator, and God with and for us as the incarnate Word and Son, is also God in and among us as God the Holy Spirit.” [ii] In fact, our God is so big, so strong, and so mighty that we take an entire Sunday, Trinity Sunday, to celebrate this awesome God who is relational, self-giving, and full of love. So, yes, our lack of understanding about the Trinity matters.
But the gospel lesson today tells us something else too – our lack of understanding does not matter. The lesson from Matthew begins, “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” This group of disciples – a group who is already down to 11 – in their final encounter with Jesus still have some doubts. Though they worship, they still struggle with questions, uncertainty, and confusion. Jesus even has to tell them, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,” because he wants them to understand who he is in relation to the God they know and love – a fact that they clearly still do not fully comprehend. To this shrinking group of confused, doubting, questioning disciples Jesus declares, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus trusts them to go and to make disciples and to baptize and to teach, even if they do not fully understand this Trinity business. Jesus’ affirmation of the disciples even in the midst of their doubt is an incredible affirmation for us today, too.
So if our understanding of the Trinity both matters and does not matter, how do we live into this ambiguity? How do we faithfully live as disciples in this tension? Well, the disciples tell us that, too. We live into the tension in community. While I was on maternity leave, I gained a new appreciation for the value of community. I watched this community from afar as you took on new responsibilities in my absence, as you ministered to one another, and as you shared the Good News, even when you did not realize that you were. As you baptized a baby, buried a matriarch, and worshiped outside in God’s creation. As you visited the sick, prayed for the weary, and fed the hungry. As you taught our children, learned from one another, and walked the streets of Plainview as members of this church. You did all of those things probably with a sense of the triune God, but also probably with a healthy dose of doubt as you worshiped and worked.
Many of you have asked me whether I missed being away from church during maternity leave. Though there were certainly things that I enjoyed taking a break from, I realized palpably how much I missed our community of faith during Holy Week. As I watched each day of Holy Week passing, I felt a sense of deep longing and absence. I had not realized how strongly I am marked by the ritual and presence of this community. Even when I struggle to define the Trinity, I have a community of faith that always gathers and makes meaning in my life. Being absent from the community during that time was almost like losing an arm or being a foreigner in a foreign land.
This day that we celebrate is certainly about the creator, redeemer, and sustainer God that we sort-of know. This day is also a day that we celebrate the wonderful gift of a community of faith with which to worship and doubt together in a beautiful dance before our triune God. If you have not taken a moment recently to fully appreciate the gift of this community, I invite you to do that today. If you have been so busy with renovation projects, running a ministry, or just trying to get to church, take a moment today to appreciate the gift of this community. Or if you are relatively new to this community, or just do not feel like you have found your own ministry in this place, I invite you to take that next step, and to find a way to connect more deeply to the life and ministry here at St. Margaret’s. I think you will find a wonderful set of companions who do not have “it” all figured out, but who worship in the midst of their doubt – and who have a triune God who is with them always, to the end of the age. Amen.
[i] Stephen B. Boyd, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 46.
[ii] Steven P. Eason, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 46.